Friday, March 23, 2012

Surprising Services

Services are arguably what OSGi is about but at the same time they are also the least understood. When we set out to design OSGi our key requirement was to create an ad-hoc collaborative programming model. Instead of components that are centrally managed and/or are closely coupled to their siblings, we looked for a model of independent peers. To understand what I mean:

In a peer-to-peer model you need to be able to find out who your peers are, and how you can collaborate with them. In the agent or actor model the peer is identified and messages are exchanged based on peer identity. Peer dependencies suffers from the transitive dependency aggregation, quite soon almost all agents are transitively dependent on each other and there is no more component reuse. This is the big ball of mud problem. To address this problem we came up with the service model.  OSGi services combine package based contracts with an instance broker, to provide a managed conduit between peers. 

That said, then what is actual the value of the services for application developers?

Well, the surprising effect of services is that the contracts can often be significantly simplified over traditional APIs because in most Java APIs the collaborative parts are mixed with instance coupling techniques (hacks?)  (DocumentBuilderFactoryInitialContextFactoryBuilder anyone?) and administrative aspects.

It turns out that with services you rarely need to define contracts for these aspects since they are taken care of by the service model (factories, but much more), or in most cases can stay inside the component. Many administrative aspects can be handled by the implementation. Service contracts can be limited to strictly the collaborative parts. And size does matter, the smaller the contract, the easier it is to use.

For example, assume you need to use a persistent queue that is used by a set of workers. Active MQ, Amazon SQS, etc. have a significant number of API calls about maintaining the queues, setting the properties, and interacting with it. However, virtually all of those aspects can be defined in Configuration Admin, the only collaborative aspects are how does the worker get its task and how do you queue a task?

The by far simplest solution I know is to define a contract where only the worker registers a Worker service and a MessageQueue service:

  public class MyWorker implements Worker<MyTask> {
      MessageQueue queue;

      public void work(MyTask task) { 
         ... AnotherTask.class, another );

      void setQueue( MessageQueue queue ) {
         this.queue = queue;

This queuing contract is sufficient to allow a wide variety of different implementations. Implementing this with the Amazon Simple Queue Service is quite easy. A puny little bundle can look for the services, uses the queue service property to listen to queues and dispatch the messages. In this case, the web based AWS console can be used to manage the queues, no code required. A more comprehensive implementation can use Configuration Admin to manage queues, or it can create queues on demand. Implementing this on another persistent queue can be done quite different without requiring any change in the components that act as senders and workers.

If there is one rule about simplifying software that works consistently then it is hiding. Something that you could not see can't bug you. OSGi services are by far the most effective way to hide implementation details; minimizing what must be shared. Our industry is predicted to double the amount of code in the next 8 years, we better get our services on or this avalanche will bury us.

 Peter Kriens

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